Jason Ward is a rising star in the birding community and he keeps shining brighter every day. Host of the Topic’s “Birds of North America,” and writer for the National Audobon Society, Ward’s birdwatching career began in the most unlikely of places—the Bronx, NY. Learn how he was able to turn his passion for birds into a successful career.
Birding isn’t known to be a favorite pastime in the South Bronx, NY. How did you come to love birds while living in one of America’s busiest cities?
I’ve been infatuated with wildlife since childhood. My infatuation began with dinosaurs and progressed from there. Birds wound up being my favorite class of animal, partially due to the fact that they are indeed modern-day dinosaurs—But also due to their ability to fly. They can leave a less-than-suitable habitat and find somewhere new to live. That was something I wished I had the ability to do, growing up in the South Bronx, which was (and probably still is) one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. I was able to live vicariously through the birds and allow my mind to wander, wondering where they’ve been, in hopes I’d experience these places in person one day.
You’re now working at the National Audubon Society in Atlanta. Can you give us a little insight into your career journey that led you to one of the largest, most recognized bird conservation organizations in the United States?
For several years now, I felt like I’ve been on a crash course with Audubon. We were destined to work together in some capacity or another. I began leading bird walks for the Atlanta Audubon Society in January of 2014. I’d only been birding for 8 months prior to that. It clearly didn’t take long for me to fall in love with birding. I soon became “the bird man” in my circle of friends, and on social media. In fact, it was my Twitter rants on bird identification that caught the eye of Purbita Saha, an associate editor at National Audubon and an overall amazing person. I was concerned with the sheer number of birders I’d hear complaining about how difficult it was to identify fall-plumaged warblers. So I started a long, descriptive Twitter thread detailing how to tell them apart from one another. I’ve since written 9 articles for them. I try to make an effort to be involved in most things bird-related. Whether it’s in person or on the internet, on a national, and local level. It’s been a lot of fun seeing my role increase over time.
When you’re not engaging communities in your day job, you are engaging people on Twitter. The hashtag-based bird identification game “#TrickyBirdID” you’ve hosted for the last 2.5 years has been recognized by the Alongside Wildlife Foundation. You were the first recipient of the foundation’s Outreach Award. How did you come up with the idea for this game, and what keeps you doing it after so long?
Coincidentally, Dr. David Steen, the well-known wildlife ecologist and founder of the Alongside Wildlife Foundation is the one who unknowingly inspired me to start #TrickyBirdID. He uses his Twitter platform to educate the public on snakes and other reptiles. He noticed that tons of people were posting photos of snakes seen in their yards, thinking they were Copperheads. His use of the hashtags #NotACopperhead and #SnakeID set off lightbulbs in my head. I wanted to do the same thing, but with birds. At the time, bird ID groups already existed on Facebook, like the American Birding Association’s “What’s This Bird?”, but no one was doing it on Twitter on a consistent basis.
Bird identification can be difficult, especially if you don’t know what to look for. There are tricks to the trade, and I wanted to share those with the public. Turns out, people really enjoy the game! Which makes me incredibly happy, they’re the driving force behind the continuation of the game. As long as people are enjoying it, I’ll keep on facilitating it.
So how did you make the transition from Twitter game host to web series host of Topic’s “Birds of North America“?
It was my consistent effort to share my love for birds with folks on Twitter that spawned the opportunity for the web series. Anna Holmes, the editorial director at Topic, a visual storytelling platform, reached out to me via Twitter. Two months later, we were in Central Park, in New York City, shooting the pilot episodes, which were directed by Rob Meyer, director of “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”—A movie I watched and loved during my first year as a birder.
I had no training at all in how to be the host of a show, but it’s been something I’ve always dreamt of doing; I wanted to emulate the styles of Jeff Corwin, Chris and Martin Kratt, and Steve Irwin growing up. The only practice or training that I had was working as an educator at Zoo Atlanta, where I had the opportunity to lead groups of people on tours around the zoo and teach them about the animals in our collection. As a child, I would do the same with my parents as we walked around The Bronx Zoo.
In “Birds of North America” you’ve traveled the country and met with a variety of people such as Dr. Drew Lanham, Molly Adams and Paul Sweet. What has been your most memorable experience filming thus far?
There have been so many memorable experiences so far, and many more to come. I think the highest point for me was being able to share the platform with my younger brother, Jeffrey. We both have come a long way and it means so much more to have a family member there to enjoy the ride with. We both know what it’s like to navigate our way through an environment dominated by people who don’t look like us. It was extremely important for me to make him a continuing part of “Birds of North America.” We both want to make it a mission of ours to usher in the next generation of wildlife enthusiasts of color, while creating a sense of community for the ones that currently exist out there. We chat often, venting about things we’ve experienced and collecting a bounty of inside jokes that are as long as our life lists. Being relatively close in age, sibling rivalry is imminent, and we compete every year to see who’ll see the most birds. I’m currently winning that battle for the second year in a row. Who knows, there might even be a podcast in the works pretty soon. Stay tuned.
What advice do you have for people who are new to the birding world?
Don’t get discouraged, birding can be difficult at times. But the beginning stages are arguably the greatest. Sure, it can be frustrating not knowing what’s making a weird sound in the canopy of a tree, especially when all you’re able to see are fleeting glimpses of the bird’s underside. But I promise, when you ARE able to find the bird you’ve been looking for, it is all worth it. There’s no joy like the thrill of seeing a bird for the first time through a pair of binoculars. It’s addicting, I wish we could bottle that feeling, but since we can’t, the best we can do is attempt to experience it over and over again.